Thursday, October 13, 2005

Belief in God

http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,1590776,00.html

'The Story of God' by Robert Winston is published by Transworld.

Extracts from Winston's latest book:

...A Harvard psychologist named Gordon Allport did some key research in the 1950s on various kinds of human prejudice and came up with a definition of religiosity that is still in use today.

He suggested that there were two types of religious commitment -

1. extrinsic

2. intrinsic.

Extrinsic religiosity he defined as religious self-centredness. Such a person goes to church or synagogue as a means to an end - for what they can get out of it...

Allport thought that intrinsic religiosity was different. He identified a group of people who were intrinsically religious, seeing their religion as an end in itself. They tended to be more deeply committed; religion became the organising principle of their lives, a central and personal experience.

In support of his research, Allport found that prejudice was more common in those individuals who scored highly for extrinsic religion.

The evidence generally is that intrinsic religiosity seems to be associated with lower levels of anxiety and stress, freedom from guilt, better adjustment in society and less depression.

On the other hand, extrinsic religious feelings - where religion is used as a way to belong to and prosper within a group - seem to be associated with increased tendencies to guilt, worry and anxiety...

Richard Dawkins, our best-known Darwinist and a ferocious critic of organised religion, notes that religion seems to be, on the face of it, a cost rather than a benefit:

"Religious behaviour in bipedal apes occupies large quantities of time. It devours huge resources. A medieval cathedral consumed hundreds of man-centuries in its building. Sacred music and devotional paintings largely monopolised medieval and Renaissance talent. Thousands, perhaps millions, of people have died, often accepting torture first, for loyalty to one religion against a scarcely distinguishable alternative. Devout people have died for their gods, killed for them, fasted for them, endured whipping, undertaken a lifetime of celibacy, and sworn themselves to asocial silence for the sake of religion."

...In his book Darwin's Cathedral, David Sloan Wilson, professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University in New York state, says that religiosity emerged as a "useful" genetic trait because it had the effect of making social groups more unified... The better the religion was at producing an organised and disciplined group, the more effective they would have been at staying alive, and hence at passing their genes on to the next generation. This is what we mean by "natural selection": adaptations which help survival and reproduction get passed down through the genes...

And it is easy to suggest a mechanism by which religious beliefs could help us to pass on our genes. Greater cohesion and stricter moral codes would tend to produce more cooperation, and more cooperation means that hunting and gathering are likely to bring in more food. In turn, full bellies mean greater strength and alertness, greater immunity against infection, and offspring who develop and become independent more swiftly. Members of the group would also be more likely to take care of each other, especially those who are sick or injured. Therefore - in the long run - a shared religion appears to be evolutionarily advantageous, and natural selection might favour those groups with stronger religious beliefs.

But this is not the whole story. Although religion might be useful in developing a solid moral framework - and enforcing it - we can quite easily develop moral intuitions without relying on religion.

Psychologist Eliot Turiel observed that even three- and four-year-olds could distinguish between moral rules (for example, not hitting someone) and conventional rules (such as not talking when the teacher is talking). Furthermore, they could understand that a moral breach, such as hitting someone, was wrong whether you had been told not to do it or not, whereas a conventional breach, such as talking in class, was wrong only if it had been expressly forbidden. They were also clearly able to distinguish between prudential rules (such as not leaving your notebook next to the fireplace) and moral rules.

This would suggest that there is a sort of "morality module" in the brain that is activated at an early age. Evidence from neuroscience would back this up, to a degree. In my last book, The Human Mind, I noted that certain brain areas become activated when we engage in cooperation with others, and that these areas are associated with feelings of pleasure and reward. It also seems that certain areas of the brain are brought into action in situations where we feel empathy and forgiveness.

So religion does not seem to be produced by a specific part of our psychological make-up...

Bouchard has consistently found in many of his studies that intrinsic religiosity -which seems to incorporate a notion of spirituality - is much more likely to be inherited. Extrinsic religiosity tends to be a product of a person's environment and direct parental influence...

· The Story of God by Robert Winston is published by Transworld

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